“MEXICO: OF GARDENERS AND DRUG DEALERS” SPEECH OF H. E. EDUARDO MEDINA-MORA.
AMBASSADOR OF MEXICO TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB. NEWSMAKER COMMITTEE
Distinguished members from the National Press Club
Distinguished members of the Newsmakers Committee
Representatives from the press and public affairs
We are here to talk about Mexico, but let me begin by saying that I love cinema. Whereas my children cannot get through the first thirty minutes of The Seven Samurai, I pride myself on having watched, I guess, all of Akira Kurosawa’s films. More than just entertainment, I believe that the movies a nation produces can provide insight into the attitudes of that country. So I find that it is my duty as Ambassador to the United States to keep up with American cinema. And I have come to a staggering, yet perhaps obvious, conclusion: In contemporary American cinema, Mexican characters are frequently drug dealers and gardeners.
Mexicans on the silver screen are usually portrayed as poor and uneducated at best, corrupt and violent at worst. Even our best actors, like Demián Bichir, cannot escape the gardeners and drug dealers trap for Mexicans in Hollywood.
(As you may know, Bichir was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a gardener in “A Better Life” before moving on to play a drug dealer in Oliver Stone's “Savages”)
Not that I find anything wrong with gardeners or any service jobs. Gardening is a perfectly dignified way to make a living. Drug dealers are another matter, but I will get to them later.
The problem with always portraying Mexicans as gardeners is that it implies that they are not capable of doing anything else. And it overlooks the entrepreneurial spirit of migrants and their desire to improve themselves. Hard work and risk taking are in migrants’ job descriptions. Planting seeds is very hard work on its own. It may not seem risky to you, but try doing it when you don’t have papers or insurance or job protections. It starts to feel more adventurous, right?
Let me get back to Hollywood. Cinema is not just a manifestation of the attitudes of society; it also reinforces and perpetuates those attitudes. So when movies continually stereotype Mexicans as a certain kind of people, the American public that consumes those movies will inevitably be influenced by them.
You might say to yourself: yes, the general public has some misconceptions about other countries and peoples, but that is nothing new. I, as a seasoned journalist, see beyond all that. And perhaps you do, but let me provide you with an interesting example in the form of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman:
After covering events all over the globe, Tom recently paid his first visit to Mexico. His conclusion? That Mexico today is more like a crazy blend of the movies "No Country for Old Men" and "The Social Network". Now, don't get me wrong, I very much appreciate Tom's article because he is straightforward about his prior misconceptions of Mexico and very positive about what he saw. Tom's piece is wonderful but worrying. If someone of his stature doesn't get Mexico, then, who in the US does?
Confronting the complexity of any nation is a daunting task, and broad generalizations of nationalities can be entertaining, even informative at times. The problem comes, however, when we begin to make important decisions based on generalizations.
The truth of any story, as one observes in Kurosawa's Rashomon or Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, usually lies at the confluence of multiple perspectives. The true story of Mexico is no different. Without a variety of perspectives, a view of the country will be incomplete. And while there are certainly Mexican gardeners and drug dealers, they are vastly overrepresented in Hollywood and in the public mind.
I find that few things offer better perspective than numbers. The reality is that the demographic on the rise in Mexico is not drug dealers or gardeners, but a sophisticated middle class which grew by more than 11 percentage points between 2000 and 2010. In twenty years, Mexico´s GDP has tripled. Since 1980, the number of Mexican students receiving a higher education has also tripled. In terms of demographics, Mexico and the US have very similar fertility rates—2.2 for Mexico and 2.08 for the US—and these trends are having an impact on migration from Mexico to the United States, which is now close to zero. What’s more, and this came as a surprise even to me, Mexican tourists in the US bring more money into this country than US tourists bring to Mexico!
So, net migration from Mexico to the US is close to zero, and Mexican tourists bring lots of money to the US. How many Americans know that? I think most of us would agree that the number would be very small. That means that I, as Ambassador, and you, as journalists and communicators, have a job to do in order to bring public knowledge up to speed with reality.
So, are many gardeners in the US Mexican? Yes. And many other Mexicans in the US are entrepreneurs or researchers, or both. Take my good friend Roberto Trujillo, for example. He was born in Central Mexico. After making his way through medical school in his home state he came to the US for his intern year in Houston and later received his PHD at Harvard. He is now working on a cure for skin and cervical cancer. I won’t tell you his whole story—actually, you should invite him for a talk—but he is a scientist, a humanist, an entrepreneur, who has made big contributions to science and medicine in the US and the world.
Another Mexican scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Mario Molina, was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. He currently heads a research group at the University of California in San Diego. I am still eagerly waiting for the movie where Salma Hayek plays a Nobel Prize winning chemist that teaches young Americans to create new forms of alternative energy...
In light of the demographic shifts I mentioned, it's also easy to see the disconnect between Hollywood depictions of my countrymen and the reality of Mexico in 2013. And this new reality is connected to another often misunderstood story—the story of NAFTA.
My team and I frequently have long discussions on the concept of the North America Free Trade Agreement. People have told us that NAFTA is a brand that will never be saved from its own negative associations. But again, if we take a look at the numbers, I think it would be difficult for anyone to disagree that it has been a successful treaty which has benefited all countries involved.
Bilateral trade between Mexico and the United States has grown to almost 500 billion dollars. In 2012, total US exports to Mexico reached 217 billion dollars, which is more than US exports to Japan and China combined, or to all the BRICS combined, and almost as much as to the European Union. The White House estimates that 6 million jobs in the US depend on exports to Mexico. And by the way, goods that the US imports from Mexico have, on average, 40 percent US content. Imports from China have 4 percent US content. So by comparison... 4 to 40.
This last detail is important because I would venture to guess that few Americans know the extent to which the United States and Mexico compete together as one unit in the global economy. The United States and Mexico (as well as Canada), build things together to sell here and abroad. While the tag may say Made in Mexico or Made in the United States, more and more, those products are actually just Made in North America and the label should reflect that. To put it simply, in the paradigm of the new global economy, the interests of Mexico and the United States are aligned because we build and export things together.
The world economy is changing, and big trade blocks—like the TPP and the Pacific Alliance—are being organized around the world. Mexico, by virtue of the fact that we have more free trade agreements than almost any other nation on the planet, is the only country of the emerging economies which is a player with all those trade blocks.
Now, let me get back to the other role so often played by Mexicans in American cinema: drug dealers. To say it bluntly: Yes, there is a drug trade in the world that has become a significant problem in many regions and countries, Mexico included. But the depiction of Mexicans as inherently bad people, drug dealers, and corrupt policemen is not only racist, it is totally wrong.
What’s more, we cannot fail to take into account the social context in which the drug issue occurs. When there are solid institutions, favorable economic conditions and opportunities, people will tend to be constructive. The vast majority of the Mexican population consists of hard-working, constructive people attempting to meet their needs and achieve their dreams, just like you and me, just like anybody else.
I am an unrepentant law enforcer, but in terms of our drug-related security issues, I am, we are, everybody is, unhappy and frustrated with the status quo. “It’s not working” has become a familiar refrain among those of us who see insufficient progress to reduce drug trafficking and consumption. Meanwhile, we grow more and more obsessed with how to deal with the drug issue. But that obsession is often misguided…
There is an old joke about an employee at a department store who is suspected of stealing from the store. Every day when the employee leaves, the manager instructs the security guard to check him for stolen merchandise. Each day, the security guard looks carefully into the employee's backpack, and each day he finds nothing. This goes on for weeks... Finally, one day, the security guard finally realizes what’s happening.... the employee is stealing the backpacks themselves.
Sometimes when we look at a problem too closely, we just do not see it. Or we don’t see in its proper context. And when a problem persists despite all your efforts to solve it, that usually means you are asking the wrong questions. I think we need to stop and reflect on whether the drug issue in itself is really the problem. If we could magically solve the drug issue, where would we be? Probably, not far from where we are today.
The truth is that the debate on what to do about drugs is sterile if not framed in a larger discussion about social context and institutional strength and capabilities. Any combination of policies toward drugs, from complete legalization to draconian prohibition, will have tradeoffs and will have unwanted consequences. There are no definitive answers or policy approaches.
Our real problem, then, is institutional weakness. In justice and security, we lack the strength and presence that the government has in other areas. And so our efforts must be directed to a single, very predictable goal: building the basis for the rule of law. Our primary objective is not to eliminate drugs off the face of the earth, but to guarantee the peace and well-being of our communities.
Justice reforms are of key importance and the adoption of an oral, adversarial, accusatorial system has proven very effective. But this is not a silver bullet either. If any security strategy is to achieve good results, it will be because the prosecution of crime is, at the same time, effective and respectful of human rights. A holistic approach, that is based on a rational analysis of the causes of crime and generates broad policies aimed at transforming the living conditions in our countries, will bring, in the end, better results.
Those broad policies I just mentioned must include effective coordination at the international level. If we are to successfully confront transnational organized crime that means sharing responsibility for a problem that affects us all.
If you allow me, I will make one last request: The next time you see one of those movies like From Dusk till Dawn where the characters who cross into Mexico enter a dusty, barren land just this side of purgatory, please remember…
Remember that ten cities in Mexico are World Heritage Sites and that we are one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world.
Remember that most real Mexicans live in urban areas and have more in common with the people of L.A. or New York than they do with the imaginary backwater villages of Hollywood.
Remember, that our manufacturing industry is not just maquiladoras, but advanced electronics, auto, and aerospace factories and high tech firms;
Remember, that our police forces are not mainly made up of corrupt and unprofessional cops, but increasingly of highly trained men and women of incredible courage;
Remember, that Tequila will certainly get you drunk, but it is also a sophisticated spirit every bit as complex as fine aged single malt.
Above all, remember that we Mexicans are a varied, sophisticated and complex people with our highs and lows, our achievements and failures, and we are certainly not a neighbor to be afraid of.
Anyway, remember that we, Mexico and the United States together, can be forgiven by history but never by geography. Neither of us is going anywhere, so we might as well try and get to know each other a little bit better.
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